my coworker constantly misses work and I have to do her job for her

A reader writes:

For the most part, I really enjoy my job. It is my first job out of university, and I’m well-paid and appreciated and work in a small, tight-knit division. One of my coworkers, “Cecilia,” drives me nuts though. Because my boss, “Jack,” is fairly understanding and flexible about time off and vacations, she takes advantage and regularly takes off two weeks or so almost every two months, often during busy seasons. We are supposed to have three weeks off the entire year, but Jack will let you have time off if work is slow because we work so much during crunch time. I feel terribly because she’s past retirement age and has grandkids and an ailing mother. But every single time she leaves, her work falls to me.

My boss has tried many, many things to accommodate this issue. He switched some of our roles so my work was more stable. He has told her he will not approve absences when key tasks are not done. He has limited approvals for vacations (though family emergencies can’t really be mitigated). However, her area of work is intricate and ongoing, and I’m the only person who has enough knowledge to do it without prompting or diverting too many people, even though I now primarily work in a separate area.

I am deeply, deeply sympathetic to her tragedies, but I cannot keep doing Cecilia’s work for her. This Thursday, she gave notice that she would be out of the country by Monday for yet another family emergency. I’ve asked to speak to Jack about what my role is in Cecilia’s absence. What can I say to show that while I’m a team player, I’m starting to feel as if I am being taken advantage of? I can do the work she does along with my work; it is just terribly stressful, extremely tiring, and I have to help her catch up. How can I say to Jack that I know he is trying his best but I cannot accommodate her at the expense of my well-being and with no extra compensation?

Say this: “I’ve wanted to be accommodating to Cecilia and have put a lot of energy into covering her work when she’s out. However, I’ve been asked to cover for her so frequently at this point that it’s becoming unsustainable for me. When she’s gone, I have to do her work as well as my own, which adds significantly to my workload and takes a lot out of me to keep up with it all. I can do it occasionally in an emergency, but I can’t keep doing it regularly. And even if there were a way to lessen my own work during those times, I want to continue working in Area X, where my job is, rather than being pulled into Area Y to handle Cecilia’s projects. I’m happy to help cover for Cecilia for the normal three weeks we all get off every year, but I’d like to limit it to that. Is that possible?”

Note that you’re not getting into whether or not Jack should be approving all this vacation time for Cecilia; that’s his call. You’re keeping the focus on your part of this, which is that you’re not up for covering for her all the time.

From there, Jack has a few different options: He can take this as a wake-up call that what he’s doing isn’t sustainable for the organization and change how much time off he’s allowing Cecilia to take … or, if he’s committed to allowing Cecilia to take as much time off as she wants, he can hire additional staff to cover for her … or he can find other people already on staff to handle her workload … or he can tell you that you have to suck it up and keep doing Cecilia’s work all the time, in which case you can decide if you’re up for that or whether you’d rather go elsewhere.

But by having this conversation, you’ll push him to deal with the situation, which so far it sounds like he’s been able to avoid because he just sticks you with all the burden.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 170 comments… read them below }

  1. AMG*

    What if you asked to change roles so that you ARE doing Cecilia’s job full-time and someone else can do yours? Maybe a more sable person in that position is just what is needed, and can get you more skills and set you up for a promotion down the road. I would suggest cross-training and using this to your advantage. Obviously, it all hinges on your boss’s buy-in and willingness to get more support.

    1. AMG*

      For the record, I do sympathize with Cecilia. I have had multiple family emergencies this year and used more PTO than I had. Then I made arrangements for others to help out so that I didn’t impact my job any further. This isn’t what you are asking, but speaking as someone who has been there–and still is–Cecilia needs to work this out in her personal life. Your boss is remiss in not telling her so.

    2. Letter Writer*

      Hi there! Thank you.

      Part of the problem is that I hate Cecilia’s work. All of the things we changed in her job role are things I do not care to cultivate as skills. If anything, I worry about being pigeonholed as that person forever. Jack has also hinted that he’d be willing to change her job again if it would give me a better balance. But I don’t want to change our roles, I just want her to do hers.

      1. Artemesia*

        Jack needs to train someone else to do Cecilia’s job and then find a part time person, a temp or another employee to do the less detailed tasks that that person has to give up to cover. I agree with Alison that the key here is to firmly push back and make it clear that this is not sustainable for you; her wording is a good opening gambit. And I agree that you should focus on ‘we need to find another way to cover these tasks since apparently Cecelia is going to be working part time on them and this is a continuing issue. Make clear that he needs to find a different coverage alternative by clearly articulating the recurring nature of the demand and your inability to add it to your workload indefinitely AND your unwillingness to change roles.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Yes, this. Jack is leaning on you because it is the path of least resistance – Cecilia has guilted you both into feeling like it’s OK for her not to do her job, and Jack would rather you pick up her slack than address how that is affecting the business. It is his job to manage employee leave and to mitigate its effects on the workplace.

          1. The Bimmer Guy*

            “Cecilia has guilted you both into feeling like it’s OK for her not to do her job, and Jack would rather you pick up her slack than address how that is affecting the business.”

            Well, I don’t know about all that. And the letter writer will probably come across as being more concerned about her own welfare–which she is–if she assumes that this is an unfortunate situation, rather than an attempt by either Cecilia or Jack to take advantage of her. I like Alison’s idea. LW shoud leave Cecilia’s purposes for taking off so much out of the equation; she should focus instead on the misunderstanding that Jack thinks LW can do both your and Cecilia’s work…and she should explain how it’s not a sustainable situation.

            1. neverjaunty*

              That’s exactly how she should explain it to Jack – but OP talks over and over about how much sympathy she has for Cecelia, and how Jack has made many failed attempts to accommodate Cecelia (even though he is her boss) rather than making arrangements for coverage.

        2. cellphonetyper*

          Since Cecilia seems to be the family firefighter, I wonder if she’d be interested in a parttime schedule. That could mean there could be two parttimers, and someone already trained to do the job. Because this doesnt sound like a one time emergency, it’s frequent, so it needs a long term solution, not a shortterm patch.

          1. Kyrielle*

            But is it frequent on a regular basis, or only recently? I’m unclear from OP’s letter how long this has been going on. If it’s regular for years – then yes, this might help, if it can work for Cecilia. But if it’s just been bad for 6 months or a year, I’d suggest the boss look for cross-training or another short-term solution for a short-term issue.

            I wasn’t quite this bad, but I had quite the rash of time off for about six or nine months at one point. And I was one of the key technical players on my team. I did everything I could to cross-train people (prior to the problem time as well as during it), but that still meant they had to pick up my slack while I was out.

            First my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Then, predictably, she passed away. Then, my Dad was driving to the lawyer to start probate on the will, lost control on an icy road, and died in the crash. I’m an only child and had their estate, their house and things, and their cats to deal with, as well as my own grief, and only my husband to support me.

            So yes, I was a freaking mess and used every bit of the available vacation, sick, and bereavement time I had accumulated (because like Cecilia, I’d been there a long time, and in our case we could bank time – I was near max on banked time at the start of this), and my boss gave me extra days here and there when I had to go deal with lawyers or the like.

            And then I came back and kicked *** at work and I was EVER so grateful to them for giving me everything they could during that time, because I did need the job, but I also needed to do these other things and grieve.

            I’m not saying the OP’s situation is sustainable – the boss needs to do something different. But I am asking for a little compassion for Cecilia, who may in fact have real crises that really were unavoidable, and who apparently lives in another country from many of her relatives (whereas I only lived 45 minutes’ drive away from my parents!), and who may need to be able to come back to her job in order to afford to live herself….

            She might be taking advantage. She might be the family firefighter/martyr. But she might not. And honestly, it truly doesn’t matter for OP’s best solution – it’s up to the boss to figure out how to interact with Cecilia, OP just needs the boss to find a way to reduce the frequency with which OP ends up doing Cecilia’s workload (regardless of whether that’s by keeping Cecilia in the office, hiring a temp, adding a new body, or cross-training more of the other staff).

            1. Tamsin*

              +1. And, when reading the letter, it wasn’t obvious to me at all that Cecilia is taking all this time as vacation, as the OP seems to assume. In fact I immediately thought she must have banked a ton — perhaps months — of sick/personal time over the years, which is supposed to be used in precisely this way.

              1. Letter Writer*

                Just want to note: I was trying to emphasize that 1. This is very frequent and uncommon 2. She takes vacation AND leave. I’m not interested in the HR aspect of it because I have no control over it and would consider it highly inappropriate to ask, inquire or suggest anything so far as it does not concern me. Again, if it is not busy, that is fine with me.

                1. Tamsin*

                  I agree that your boss is not handling the absences well. My point is that she might legitimately have this much time banked and earned and coming to her, which is why the boss and company are giving it to her.

              1. Kyrielle*

                Thank you. It was awful. One of the bright spots was how kind and help my team and my company were. They let me be out when I needed to…and they let me come in and pretend nothing had changed when I needed to. Sometimes, immersing myself in work was exactly what had to happen.

        3. TootsNYC*

          This might be a thing to suggest to Jack as a possible solution, or even to start subtly doing–training other people to do those aspects of Cecilia’s job.
          It’s important to have cross-capability. What if you had an emergency need to be out of the office while Cecilia was on one of these leaves?

        4. addiez*

          Cross-training!! We always have at least two people on our team who can do everything. Especially if she’s of retirement age already, you shouldn’t be the only one who knows how to do it anyway. If you have slow times, is there anyone who’s busy when you’re slow and slow when you’re busy? Someone else should learn this. That could be a suggestion too – if there’s someone else you can help train to share the responsibility of covering for her.

          1. Artemesia*

            I once did a management consult for a small operation where one dysfunctional employee basically had the office in his power because he was the ONLY one who could X, Y and Z and he encouraged the secretarial staff to believe it was very difficult and complicated and beyond them. The first thing I suggested was that the manager get fully trained on the technology and the second that everyone else get cross trained so the office always had capable staff for key roles. Worked like a charm. Cecilia is near retirement AND works part time at the moment; the manager is derelict for not doing some succession planning and cross training here. Is he assuming the OP will just take over the job when C retires — after all she has been doing it just fine all along.

            Danger LetterWriter — head this off at the pass by focusing on the need to get people cross trained or additional support now.

  2. Mando Diao*

    Ugh, I’ve been there and it’s really lousy, especially if your coworker has a lot of family issues and you’re the sort of person who, for whatever reason, doesn’t have a lot of drama in her personal life. There’s a prevailing attitude that people should be openly willing to accommodate other people’s tragedies, but I don’t find that it’s sustainable or even healthy in practice, and double so if you know it’s not a temporary thing. Even if you are sympathetic toward Cecilia, no one has the right to silence you when you try to speak up about the burden this is placing on you.

    OP, I’d encourage you to look for a different job. Your boss has shown you that, for whatever reason, he doesn’t have a whole lot of limits for letting people take emergency time off, and that he doesn’t care about how that affects the people who are there to do the work. It doesn’t seem like any cross training is happening; your boss is depending on you to be the one who’s always there. You’re in a “no good deed goes unpunished situation.” I worked in a place like that for a long time. Morale was low, and turnover is high. No matter how emergent the situation, there comes a point when an employer has to stop approving time off. Employees have to be present to do their work. Cecilia won’t be the last person you have to cover for. Get ready to be the go-to gal every time someone goes on maternity leave or vacation.

    In this particular case, is your employer maybe unsure as to how they could encourage Cecilia to retire? It sounds like they’re proceeding as if they don’t really need her anymore and they’re just letting her keep the job as a gesture, but they don’t realize that some of her duties are actually essential. You could ask your boss to either have her duties permanently assigned to you (or someone else) if this is going to keep happening, since it’s the back-and-forth that’s causing the problems, not just the work itself.

    1. Ashley the Paralegal*

      I disagree with this comment. OP is young now, and presumably does not have kids or health issues, but if/when she does, she will be very thankful for having a boss that understands that we are all human and sometimes we need a little slack during tough times. I know my attitude changed on this after I had my son. When I first started at my first legal job, my babysitter called me up and quit mid-day about 3 weeks into my new job. I had to explain the situation to my boss and take a week off to find a daycare that could care for him while I was at work. I will forever be thankful that I had the kind of boss that was understanding during that unforeseen circumstance. These kinds of bosses are rare and should not be faulted for treating their staff compassionately.

      1. K*

        It’s fine to a point. You are describing a one time occurrence, but if you were taking a week off every month to deal with childcare issues for coworkers would start to resent you.

        1. Ashley the Paralegal*

          I agree with you K. I was disagreeing with the characterization of OP’s boss as being a bad boss to work for. I do agree that Cecelia needs to figure out a way to manage her personal life a bit better.

          1. Artemesia*

            He is a bad boss because he doesn’t deal with a situation as long as it comes out of someone else’s hide. The test will be if he steps up and cross trains someone else when the OP complains about this situation. But she should keep in mind that she may need to move on if he is unwilling to find a solution other than ‘you just need to suck it up and don’t bother me about it.’

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Agreed — it’s lovely to go above and beyond to be accommodating if your business needs allow it, but it’s not good management if it regularly comes at the expense of other people.

            2. neverjaunty*

              Yep. I’m really bothered by all the ‘well, life happens’ comments. Yes, it does, but it’s not the OP’s job to be the permanent firefighter for other people’s lives happening. And it’s also kind of offensive to say that the OP is young and doesn’t have kids and so just doesn’t understand what it’s like to have family emergencies. She’s not griping that her co-worker stayed home once with a sick baby, she’s talking about her boss’s failure to manage the long-term impact of an absent co-worker.

              1. LBK*

                Yes – “life happens” is meant to imply that sometimes there are emergencies that are out of your control that will conflict with work. It means if you get a flat tire or catch the flu or your grandmother dies, your manager should give you leeway to deal with that. It doesn’t mean personal emergencies make you impervious to the consequences of being unable to consistently perform your job and that you should be given an unlimited supply of leeway to deal with those issues.

                The expectation is that coverage is a give and take; you don’t gripe about covering for your coworker when they’re out sick for a day because there’s an understanding that they’ll do the same when you’re out. But at this point there’s such a huge imbalance that the debt can never be repaid; the coworker can’t ever return the full value of the “give” that she owes the OP for all of her “take”.

            3. Kyrielle*

              Yes, this. A good boss would help Cecilia out if they possibly could *while* making sure they didn’t dump all the burden of that on one employee, or an unsustainable amount on any employee, in the long term.

      2. Ashley the Paralegal*

        Alternatively I had a boss once that insisted I come to work the same day I was in a car crash because I was out of paid time off and would get an attendance point if I didn’t. Needless to say, I didn’t stay at that job much longer.

      3. AdAgencyChick*

        I think everyone has a “goodwill bank” that determines how far others are willing to go to help that person. It doesn’t start out empty, because we’re all human beings and if you’re an empathetic person, you recognize that one day, it could be you asking for help. But it’s not infinite, and people need to “make deposits,” so to speak.

        The awesome account supervisor who’s been super reliable and responsive through the two years I’ve worked with her, who covered for me once when I was sick, and then a relative of hers gets cancer and she needs to start going to chemo treatments with the relative once a week? You bet I’m going to bust my hump to help her out, maybe even for months on end. (But if it truly were months on end, I would probably try to work with my boss to get the extra workload rotated or otherwise divided among more than one person.)

        Her counterpart who periodically comes in late on Friday mornings, obviously hung over? I will already be tired of covering for her. Her “goodwill bank” is empty. I will be genuinely sorry for her if a family emergency happens, but much less willing to pick up her slack than I would be for the first person.

        It sounds like Cecilia is running her “goodwill bank” dry, at least with OP, either because she was unreliable before all of this happened or simply because the situation has gone on for so long. It’s on OP’s boss, as Alison says, to manage this, whether that is by redistributing work or deciding that OP’s resentment is unwarranted and flat out telling her, “This is the situation for the foreseeable future; are you able to work with that?”

        1. Sunshine*

          Very well put. I’ve had similar issues with Person A, who was unreliable and nasty to everyone; then person B who was unreliable and genuinely sorry about burdening the team. Very marked difference in how much the team was willing to step in for each of them.

        2. neverjaunty*

          Exactly this. Speaking as someone who has also had health and kid emergencies, it is not OK to simply expect everyone to cover for you and give nothing back. Everybody has stuff happen in their lives, and functional co-workers cover for each other and try to mitigate the effects of leave or absences. When somebody plays the sympathy card to routinely dump their work on others, well, that’s not about being “family friendly” or “work-life balance”. That’s just a moocher.

        3. Charity*

          This is a great way to put it.

          Even if you really like this person and their problems are easy to sympathize with (aka not a hangover every Friday), the situation is still basically 1 person doing 150% of the work while their coworker does 50% of the work. You would run out of goodwill and — honestly — just run out of *energy* after a while especially if both jobs are meant to be full-time positions.

          1. JessaB*

            Yes and even if the bank has a balance, there comes a point when it starts being overdrawn even if the employee is great and wonderful and helps everyone all the time. It’s incumbent on the boss to make sure that the people taking up the slack are not burning out, because sooner or later they’ll either quit and put more pressure on the team or end up on leave themselves and put more pressure on the team. You can’t live like that for long. Sooner or later the pressure is going to blow.

        4. Leslie Knope's Waffle*

          I like this idea of a “goodwill bank.” I think everyone’s threshold is different, but after working with people for awhile, I think you can kind of tell who’s taking advantage of a co-worker’s kindness and ability to be a team player.

          I’m in a similar situation at my current job – I’m in the OP’s position unfortunately. The difference is that my coworker has some control over her situation but thinks that the world revolves around her needs/wants and simply doesn’t care how it impacts her team or the business. Like the OP, I’m completely sympathetic to “life events” but at some point, the goodwill bank goes dry and I start saying “no” to long-term help…especially when my co-worker cannot do the work that I do, and cannot not be my back-up when I have my own life events.

      4. Mando Diao*

        In general, I think it’s bad form to tell young women that they won’t understand life until they’re older and have become mothers.

          1. Mando Diao*


            Some people are really good at compartmentalizing and working through their dramas without talking about them. It makes other people (such as coworkers) think that they don’t have anything going on in their lives, so they should be willing and able to help out when REAL tragedies happen. The idea that people aren’t going through difficult times just because they’re not bringing it into work is false and hurtful. You may be unknowingly placing a burden on someone whose tragedy is equal to yours but isn’t taking time away from work for whatever reason.

            1. Chinook*

              “The idea that people aren’t going through difficult times just because they’re not bringing it into work is false and hurtful. You may be unknowingly placing a burden on someone whose tragedy is equal to yours but isn’t taking time away from work for whatever reason.”

              I had this exact same thing happen to me. I was helping out a fellow volunteer who started slacking off and no showing and I went to our supervisor and complained that I couldn’t do both our jobs. I was then told to treat her with compassion and leniency about it because she was going through A, B and C and it is hard on a person. I looked that supervisor in the eye and said I too have been going through A, B and a complicated version of C plus have D and E as well but still know enough to call for coverage and not leave others hanging. I also pointed out that I didn’t use my problems as excuse for making more trouble for other people. The supervisor quickly shut her mouth, apologized and then arranged to give the volunteer a temporary leave (which spread the work out among a number of people, not just who was available at the last minute).

        1. AMG*

          I just read this as Ashley hadn’t been able to relate to the need for sympathy in a situation like this until she had an emergency herself.

          1. neverjaunty*

            The previous commenter said that the OP would be ‘very thankful’ someday for having a boss who understands ‘we are all human’, as if the OP’s complaint were about something other than having to constantly handle Cecelia’s job with no end in sight.

        2. JGray*

          I agree. I don’t think that if you have kids you get to use them as an excuse of why you get to take more time off than coworkers who don’t have kids or use them to shame someone. Everyone has lives and families outside of work. At my old job, I had a coworker who was late to everything once she had a baby. Part of it was she didn’t want her child in daycare but also work full time so was constantly juggling him between caregivers and part of it was that she was allowed to get away with it. I’m sorry but if we have a staff meeting scheduled at 9am than you should be there at 9am not 9:05. And just to be clear I am a mother of two so I understand what it takes to juggle. But I would also feel the same way if a coworker was always late because they had to drop their dog off at a kennel. It would annoy me.

    2. Green*

      In my experience people are willing to accommodate rare unexpected “true emergencies” (i.e., somebody’s family member unexpectedly died, so someone else will take on the case) as well as long periods of time that are expected and planned for (i.e., we take turns doing Carol’s job while she’s undergoing chemotherapy) because life happens. I think the problem here is the frequency of these unexpected emergencies and the quantity of time off for each — OP’s boss has been treating it like Situation A (people expected to step up intensively for a short period of time), when it is more like Situation B (boss needs a plan to deal with this that involves more than OP stepping up intensively for weeks at a time on a frequent basis).

      1. fposte*

        Or even Situation C: this is the norm and there’s no expectation it will ever change, even if such absences are being presented as out of the norm.

        1. Green*

          Sure. I mean we have senior people in our company entitled to over six weeks of vacation plus a year-end shut down plus sick leave. If that’s the status quo, it’s absolutely fine, but at least OP should have that information to evaluate the job.

  3. voyager1*

    I like AAMs answer, but frankly the elephant in the room is that Cecilia has basically unlimited vacation time and the boss endorses it. If the actual 3 week policy was enforced this problem goes away. I get you “feel for her” but you OP need to do what AAM suggests.

    Only problem I see is if the time away is unpaid and therefore somehow saving the company money.

    Sorry you are dealing with this.

    1. Allison*

      I’m going to disagree here. It’s not like she’s running off to the beach every two months, or even taking family vacations all that often, this is all time off she needs in order to take care of family obligations. She has a sick mother, and I wouldn’t expect someone to say “sorry mom, I gotta work.” In a case like that, you never know which emergency is going to be someone’s last . . .

      We don’t know how big Cecilia’s family is, or whether there’s someone else who can take care of her mom, or whether she can afford home or hospice care for her mom.

      1. Anna*

        Right, but that doesn’t equal endless time off to the detriment of everyone having to pick up the slack. Whatever she is or isn’t doing on her time off doesn’t change the fact that it’s seemingly a bottomless supply and is adversely affecting her ability to do her job.

        1. Green*

          A lot of companies have personal leave time that extends beyond vacation for family care (FMLA-like, but voluntary) or accommodations for people who are ill or need personal leaves of absence. The problem here isn’t that Cecilia’s arrangement with the employer (I personally am glad that my company offers lots of different arrangements for people in crisis), it’s the employer’s failure to plan for Cecilia’s absences with additional staffing or rotations.

          1. Anna*

            Down thread the OP clarifies that it is both the Canadian flavor of FMLA and vacations, so while you’re right, the issue is how her boss is managing Cecilia’s workload, it is also that with vacation, all her time off is detrimental to the team. I’m not a super fan of the way FMLA is structured in the US, but the requirement that you use paid leave (vacation and/or PTO) first avoids situations like this.

            1. Green*

              But it doesn’t really matter why Cecilia is out of the office or what Cecilia’s arrangement is with the boss. (We let people take leaves of absence for honeymoons or travel around the world or whatnot, long-term staffers are eligible for six weeks vacation, holidays and sick leave plus any other leave they may need, and we don’t make people use vacation for emergencies.) The real issue is that OP needs to know if boss is going to plan for it or not. And if not, OP can make a decision about whether this is acceptable. Focusing on Cecilia really distracts from that. OP’s workload is boss’s obligation, not Cecilia’s.

      2. Meg Murry*

        And she may be officially taking FMLA to deal with the sick mother as well, which is beyond the 3 weeks of vacation.

        Given that this is a university, is there any work that you could hire a student or two to help out with? I know in some offices that would help (they can do filing or whatever) whereas in other offices that would just turn in to you babysitting the students. Or is there a possibility of Cecelia taking longer term FMLA and getting a temp instead of her on again, off again situation?

        OP, are you in a union position (or is Cecilia)? I know many admin roles are at universities. If so it might behove you to see if there is a rule about FMLA coverage or being assigned duties other than your own (or if Cecelia is union and you aren’t, about non-union members doing union work). I would read and talk to Jack before taking it to the union as that could open a huge can of worms, but it would be good to knwo if you have anything on your side already in writing.

      3. AMG*

        My issues are legitimate emergencies too, but that doesn’t mean that work becomes optional. In fact, once it becomes a lifestyle (which is my case for the foreseeable future), all the more reason to keep a reserve in your ‘goodwill bank’.

      4. Letter Writer*

        Hi all.

        I think the vacation time piece has really thrown some folks here. She does take vacation AND also has family emergencies. It is childish of me to be resentful of her vacation and leaves and I acknowledge this but my point is that it is far and beyond any usual circumstances as far as I’m aware.

        1. neverjaunty*

          No, it’s NOT childish of you to be resentful of the fact that you are being expected to handle all the fallout of her vacation and leave time.

            1. neverjaunty*

              Right now, LW seems to be critical of herself for being resentful, which she shouldn’t be.

              1. Green*

                She’s resentful of the leaves, which isn’t a productive feeling and misdirected. She’s right to be resentful of *the extra work she’s having to do*, which she can productively channel into a discussion with her boss about how that’s unsustainable. Everyone can feel however they want, of course, but some feelings are less productive than others.

        2. CMT*

          You’re being incredibly sane and mature about this whole situation (which I am going to try to channel today with my own work frustrations). But you don’t have to be *too* forgiving and understanding. I hope you can work out a solution with your boss! And please, please update date us!

  4. JoJo*

    Call me a cynic, but it doesn’t sound as if the boss cares about the OP’s workload and burnout. Why should he? The work is getting done, and he doesn’t have to pay a temp.

    I’d start looking for another job.

    1. Just somebody*

      That’s certainly one possibility. It’s also possible that the boss doesn’t realize how much this is affecting OP. Or it’s possible that the boss knows this situation is unsustainable but has been putting off dealing with it in the hope that things change, and a discussion with OP will be his impetus for finally handling the situation. It could be that Jack is halfway through the paperwork to fire Cecelia, or halfway through the paperwork to authorize hiring a temp. We don’t know, which is why it’s time for OP and Jack to talk about it.

      1. 2 Cents*

        This is the impression I got too — that he doesn’t know just how much it’s affecting the OP. When I’ve had personal issues in my life, I’ve always appreciated (and worked harder for) bosses who showed they’re human and understand that s*** happens.

      2. TootsNYC*

        And it’s important to help your manager manager *you* by forecasting problems, including your own resentment and burnout.

        So before it gets to that point, when you realize it’s looming (which is I think right where the OP is), I think you can (and maybe even have an obligation to) say: “This is getting to be something that’s affecting how I feel about my job, how satisfied I am, how well I can do it.”
        Just as you’d say, “We’re about to run out of toner.” You say, “I’m about to run out of patience and fortitude on this issue. It’s getting to be a problem for me. Can you help me with that?”

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes, very much this! I’ve noticed sometimes commenters here are like “ooooh, never say that to your boss, terrible idea” — but honestly, reasonable bosses want to hear this kind of thing. Even some unreasonable bosses do.

          1. Letter Writer*

            Also want to note here Jack is very reasonable. I’m just kind of shy and I want to communicate clearly and effectively. I love my job otherwise and he has taken on additional mentoring that is not common for someone so junior in my industry.

            The last time I had another issue with Cecelia, he was extremely kind and made sure it never happened again. I just need to be able to articulate all my thoughts in this meeting.

            1. neverjaunty*

              LW, it’s good that Jack is very reasonable, but you are not asking for something above and beyond: you are bringing an important issue to his attention so he can resolve it. He is not doing you a favor by addressing the situation with Cecelia, he is doing his job.

          2. AMG*

            Yes. Even the worst boss I ever had was careful not to let me burn out. If you were Jack, would you want to lose your Rock Star? That would create a real problem for him, having to accommodate Cecilia and lose her only backup at the same time.

  5. rando*

    Maybe the solution is to train other employees in Celia’s work so that the entire burden doesn’t fall solely on one person. The current system puts way too much on LW, and that is not sustainable.

    I can’t tell whether the manager is giving too much leeway to Celia or just doesn’t realize the full impact of her family emergencies. For example, if a longtime, high-performing employee just has a terrible year or two, I think it’s in the long term interests of the company to give them lots of time off during that time (while appropriately handling the burden on other employees).

    1. Temperance*

      I think it makes sense to start looking for a replacement for Celia. At this point, she’s more of a burden than a useful employee.

    2. Letter Writer*

      I wan to express again that I really do feel sorry for her. We all have bad years but rarely do you get so many deaths and illnesses in the family in one year. I also feel that like me she is the organizer in her family so it is left to her to make sure everyone is in appointments and consulted about arrangements. I don’t envy her in the slightest, but I’m in no position to tell her how to manage her family and their expectations of her.

      1. Marcela*

        Probably she has made herself the organizer and go-to person in her family. My mother did it: she took care of my grandparents even when they lived with another aunt of mine, two cousins and an old uncle. She routinely took care of everything, even cooking and cleaning, and put her own family in last place. She paid a terrible price for it, for we don’t have a good relationship, she was separated from my father several years (although he wasn’t innocent either) and ultimately lost her job because she started a master and did not finish it for 10 years, and this was part of the mandatory “training” for her position as a professor.

        Although it’s not your place or even your employer’s place to tell her how to deal with her family, in my experience people like this (my mom was the worst, but not the only one I’ve seen) never fix their situation as long as the rest of the environment adjust for them. They just don’t seem to get the situation they put others in. When I am generous I think they just get a bad case of tunnel vision; when I am not, I think it’s a case of “I love so much to be so importand and needed!”.

      2. neverjaunty*

        But you are in a position to push back against how she manages her work life to accommodate all of that. It is not your job to hold her up indefinitely.

        1. fposte*

          I don’t think so, though–how Cecelia manages her life isn’t the issue. It’s how the OP’s boss manages its effects on the workflow.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Sure; what I meant is that the OP seems to think she has no right to say anything because the issue is Cecelia’s personal life, and the problem is Cecelia’s work life.

            (I may, also, be slightly suspicious of how legitimate these leaves and vacations are. When somebody is constantly bulldozing a boss and making everyone else feel guilty for questioning having to bust their humps to pick up that person’s slack, my con artist radar pings.)

            1. fposte*

              I don’t disagree on the radar, but I think it’s really important to avoid making this Cecelia vs. the OP. It may feel like it is, but that’s because of how much Jack is dropping the ball.

            2. Natalie*

              I’m not seeing that at all from the OP, honestly. They seem to be focusing on the correct issue – coverage – and doing a good job of ignoring things outside of their purview/control (the leave itself).

      3. Not me*

        That’s all understandable, and I feel sympathetic to her just reading this! But this isn’t a situation that can just keep on going indefinitely.

      4. Marian the Librarian*

        I just want to emphasize that it is completely reasonable and okay for you to think this situation isn’t sustainable long-term. Cecelia is going through a hard time, but you still get to have your own needs and wants and if Jack is a good boss he will want to help find a solution for you. You practicing self-care doesn’t mean that you are unkind or that you don’t have sympathy for Cecelia’s situation.

  6. Adam V*

    Start scheduling your own two-week vacations to start as soon as Cecilia gets back from hers. When Jack tries to deny your second vacation (because it would push you past your three weeks of scheduled vacation), tell him “every time Cecilia leaves and I’m stuck doing both of our work for two weeks, I’m so stressed by the end of it that I need my own time to recover, and hey, if you don’t mind Cecilia taking off 12 weeks a year, then I’m sure you can deal with me doing the same”.

    (And if he doesn’t try to deny your vacation, then hey! Free vacation time, courtesy of a boss who hates confrontation!)


    1. Letter Writer*

      Haha. I may or may not have taken a nice vacation this Summer. And he’s never denied me any vacation–I just prefer to take them during our lulls and in small bits(i.e. extending long weekends by two days). Doing the prep work to leave the office for long absences is stressful to me.

    2. Tamsin*

      No no no no! Cecilia is past retirement age. The likelihood that all of this time she is taking is vacation is pretty much nil. OP is new to the workforce.

      There are other forms of leave that some companies allow workers to accumulate and carry over for years, and workers there for any length of time can and do legitimately accumulated sometimes months of leave — and that is aside from any government-type of medical leave or other leave available. (I know people who treat company-provided sick days as free days off each year; our HR kindly informs new hires that the idea behind allowing workers to accumulate the leave is so they have banked, say, 2 weeks to take off if someone in the family unexpectedly dies, and there are coworkers who took months of this banked time when hospitalized, etc.)

      1. super anon*

        I work at a university in Canada like the OP, and on top of getting 4 weeks of vacation after a year of service (you get 6 weeks of vacation a year after 9+ years of service, and 2 weeks each year can be carried over, so someone who has been at the university for 9+ years could theoretically have 2 months of vacation), we also get 6 months of sick days that are separate from vacation days. This isn’t counting compassionate care leave and bereavement leave, as well as a year of mat leave.

        1. virago*

          The OP does not work at a university. In response to Meg Murry, the OP clarifies above that she is just out of university.

  7. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Make sure you bring your work up at raise time. If nothing else, you should be getting compen$ated appropriately. Your employer shouldn’t get free work out of you.

    1. Anna the Accounting Student*

      Yes, definitely bring it up at raise time. Not only because you ought to be paid for the work you do, but because it might underline just how untenable this situation will be.

  8. Temperance*

    I would let her fail rather than help her to catch up when you haven’t been able to handle your own workload. I think talking to your boss is a good idea, especially because it seems like he’s ignoring the problem and/or pushing as much on you as possible.

    1. Gene*

      This. I fully understand the desire/need to help the company succeed, but you need to care for yourself first. One of the things to bring up at your meeting is to get the his answer to the question, “With Cecilia out for the next two weeks, what an be left undone, because it’s not sustainable for me to do two jobs?”

      1. TootsNYC*

        this is nice: “What can be left undone?”

        And I also agree with the idea of not leaping to help her catch up when she’s back. Your role should be to cover what’s most crucial while she’s away.

        If she asks, and you have time, still check w/ your boss and say, “Cecilia asked me to help her with the backlog, but it means I won’t be able to do this ‘get ahead of the game’ project of my own. Is that OK with you?” If only to make it crystal clear to him how it’s impacting you.

      1. new reader*

        Very much this! I am often too quick to jump in and help others, to my own detriment and increased work hours (and I’m salaried, so no OT). The more the LW goes above and beyond to cover for Cecilia while also maintaining her own work, the less the boss will be willing to find other solutions. As long as the work is getting done, why bother spending time on alternate options? The “if it ain’t broke, why fix it” mentality.

        As tough as it is (and I admit I’m still working to achieve this myself), be a good team player, but don’t be a doormat. Cover to Cecilia (or any other appropriate coworkers) when necessary and to the best of your ability, but don’t let your own work suffer as a result. If need be, be very upfront with the boss. If he asks you to do something in Cecelia’s absence and you know you can’t accomplish both that and your own work too, ask your boss for direction on prioritizing the tasks – if you can only accomplish one that day, which would he prefer you do?

    2. Not me*

      This is so so hard to do, and I’m not sure I would do it because I hate watching resulting messes, but it’s something to think about. Somebody taking over Cecilia’s work is the only thing that keeps this going.

    3. Coffeecup's co-worker*

      That’s what I did with Mr Coffeecup, the chronic underperformer (named because I could do my job plus more than he ever did by just drinking an extra cup of coffee). For anyone else, I’d pick up some of their minor stuff if I had some spare time, but not him – let him sink on his own. The difference was that the manager did know about the problem and was trying to get rid of him, so by that point of his assignments were things that were nice to have but we could live without; if I’d had a manager who assigned important things to Coffeecup I think I’d have been here begging for advice :)

  9. Lily in NYC*

    My sympathy for Cecilia is limited because I get the feeling she is taking advantage of the boss’ good nature. I had to take more time off than usual when my dad was terminally ill because my mom needed help towards the end. My boss was so amazingly accommodating to me. However, I didn’t want people to have to pick up my work, so every night after dad was asleep, I would get on my computer and do my work remotely. Yes, I was exhausted and drained. But I think it was the right thing for me to do.

    I think Boss should change the leave policy and require documentation/doctor’s notes for leave in excess of three weeks. Or maybe it’s time to have a frank talk with Cecelia about retiring if she isn’t going to be able to pull her weight.

  10. Retail HR Guy*

    What might be happening behind the scenes is that Cecilia is exercising her FMLA rights. This is often not communicated to coworkers. “Ailing mother” and “family emergencies” stand out as being potential FMLA leave to me. In fact, though they are not officially named as covered family members in the law, caring for grandkids can nevertheless be covered under the FMLA (or state versions of the FMLA) in certain circumstances.

    So Jack may not legally be able to deny her the time off (or much of the time off). He could still address the issue by hiring someone else, but then he runs the risk of being overstaffed whenever Cecilia’s home life calms down and she has no more family emergencies.

    OP should still bring it up with Jack, but should recognize that his options might be more restricted than it seems on the surface.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      Good point. For some reason, I doubt it (but I have no idea why I’m doubting it). Hopefully she will come to the comments section and clarify.

      1. Mando Diao*

        The size of the department makes me question whether FMLA would apply. If the company is so small that there’s no cross-training and that the only employee who can cover for Celia is the new graduate, I kind of doubt that this place has more than 50 employees.

        1. 2 Cents*

          Not necessarily. I worked for a company with 200+ employees, but some departments were so small that if someone was out long-term, it drastically affected that division.

          Also, I’m not sure it’s indicative of a company size whether there’s cross-training or not. Both large and small companies fail (or succeed) at doing this effectively.

          1. afiendishthingy*

            The note that OP works in a small division made me think the company itself might not be so small. I wonder if there would be any chance of cross-training someone from another division and borrowing them when needed? Or hire a new person who could take on some of Cecilia’s responsibilities when needed, maybe also support the OP during busy times, who could also take on some responsibilities in another department?

    2. Ad Astra*

      Oh right, I hadn’t even thought of this. All the more reason for OP to focus the conversation on the impact to her work, not on the rightness or wrongness of Cecelia’s time off.

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        I assumed she was in the US. or Canada. Three weeks holiday rules out most if not all of Europe, Russia and Australia (although I’m not sure about Africa or South America)

    3. Letter Writer*

      To clarify I’m Canadian. I believe that under my province’s labour laws she may well qualify for bereavement leave or compassionate care. I’m not really dismissing Jack’s obligation to let her have time off, just its impact. Sometimes this happens when we are not busy and the effect is neglible. But when it is busy, it is crushin .

        1. AP*

          Seconded! I really admire your compassion for her situation, while still trying to find a solution that is workable for you and the department.

        2. Natalie*

          Seriously! Usually when people write in about this kind of situation we spend most of our time reminding them *not* to focus on the wrong issues.

    4. Rue*

      I was wondering the same thing about FMLA. I’ve worked quite a few places that have had a number of employees covered under FMLA, and it can be really frustrating for those who have to pick-up the slack. I’ve always understood the need for FMLA coverage, but I’ve also had coworkers who have taken advantage of it and used it to have long weekends in the summer.

    5. Meg*

      That was my immediate thought as well or the company has specific policies and it just happens that she has had a number of life events this year. I work for a large corporation but there is only one person cross-trained to do my job. Earlier this year, I took a week vacation (using my vacation leave) and then my grandmother unexpectedly passed the following week so I had to take bereavement leave. Fortunately, my specific tasks were sort of slow at the time, and not too much fell on the shoulders of the one person who is cross-trained. just because there is a lack of cross-training does not indicate to me that this company is too small for FMLA.

    6. neverjaunty*

      But Jack already has a staffing problem. He has one employee who is gone for large periods of time beyond agreed-upon leave with no endpoint, and not doing her job as a result; he has another employee (the LW) who is picking up all of the slack, which is extremely stressful and detrimental to her work.

      Jack may not have the option of telling Cecilia to stop taking leave (although in fact he might), but he certainly has other options besides having LW do Cecilia’s job for her in addition to her own. He could redistribute Cecilia’s job, hire a temp, hire a contract employee, or, you know, hire a new person and take the risk of being overstaffed.

      Right now, he’s putting all the risk on LW. I don’t think that’s fair or even a good business decision. What’s he going to do if the LW quits? Do both their jobs himself?

    7. TootsNYC*

      re: overstaffed

      Hiring temp help might be something the OP could suggest–if it’s possible to find someone to do the specialized tasks Cecilia does.

  11. IT_Guy*

    This may be covered under FMLA, so the boss doesn’t have a choice about if she takes it or not. “Cecilia” may not be paid for the time off, but the boss needs to be aware that it’s not sustainable in the long run and needs to make other plans.

  12. Anonymous Educator*

    if he’s committed to allowing Cecilia to take as much time off as she wants, he can hire additional staff to cover for her … or he can find other people already on staff to handle her workload

    I think this is the best way for it to work out. If Cecilia’s emergencies are genuine emergencies, I think it’d be unfortunate for the OP’s talk with the manager to result in Cecilia getting less time off to deal with things. If the boss won’t hire part-time or temp coverage or shift it around so others also bear the brunt of Cecilia’s absences, the OP should definitely look for another job.

    1. Temperance*

      If that’s the case, Cecilia should take a leave of absence because she’s not able to effectively do her job.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        See people’s comments above about FMLA. We don’t know all the exact circumstances of Cecilia’s absences. We just know the effect it has on the OP. It isn’t up to the OP to mess with what’s going on with Cecilia in terms of leave of absence vs. vacation vs. whatever-they-want-to-call-it. It is, however, up to the OP to vie for herself and make sure that she isn’t stuck doing two jobs, one of which is unpleasant to her (and wasn’t hers to begin with).

  13. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

    Have you tried keeping a time log?

    It’s a little easier for me to highlight when I work on other people’s projects or non-billable things, but I have found that taking something concrete to my boss to say here is the time being allocated to “x” has helped drive conversations towards change.

  14. katamia*

    You mention in another comment that you don’t want to do the kind of work Cecilia does, but in the short run, would it help if there was someone (maybe a temp) to help you with your work when Cecilia’s gets dumped on you rather than to help with Cecilia’s work?

    1. neverjaunty*

      That’s a one-way ticket to the boss deciding LW can just do Cecilia’s job instead and they’ll get somebody else to handle LW’s job. If the company needs to cover for Cecilia, they should do that directly.

      1. katamia*

        In the long run, I agree with you. In the short run, though (like if Cecilia’s going to be out during a busy time in the near future), it might help the LW just to make it through that time.

        I’ll admit that I’m also assuming LW’s talk with Jack will result in absolutely no changes and that job hunting may be in her near future. Having a temp there to help her cover for Cecilia, even if the temp is doing the work LW prefers and LW is stuck with Cecilia’s work, could allow her to put more energy toward looking for a place where a situation like this would be managed better.

        1. neverjaunty*

          But the temp should be covering Cecilia’s work – which is very different from the OP’s – not covering for the OP so she can do somebody else’s job for them. And if (as appears to be the case) this is a bad boss, then there is no “short run”. If LW pushes back against doing Cecelia’s job, Jack will just say there’s not a problem because a temp is handling LW’s work.

          1. katamia*

            I’m going off this comment in the LW’s letter regarding Cecilia’s work:

            However, her area of work is intricate and ongoing, and I’m the only person who has enough knowledge to do it without prompting or diverting too many people

            Not knowing more about their respective job duties and industry, it’s hard to say how hard it would be to find a temp capable of doing Cecilia’s work versus LW’s. In this case, I’d consider the short run to be “until LW finds another job” unless Jack really surprises everyone and actually does something to fix the problem.

        2. Artemesia*

          There is no short run in this situation. Letter Writer really should not put her future at risk by replacing her own job while she handles Cecelia’s job. However another employee should be cross trained to do this job — with perhaps temp support for her for her more generic tasks. Cecelia is retirement age; maybe this can be a carrot for someone who might be promoted into this role when it opens up since they are already trained to do it.

  15. AndersonDarling*

    Why doesn’t the boss step in to cover Cecilia’s work? If he is approving all this time, he should consider taking some of the workload as well.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I do this, as a boss. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t (and I don’t do it to the detriment of my own work; I’ve got a person out on medical leave right now, I hired someone to sub, but I’m not working on the day-to-day work, I’m doing budgets).

      But generally, I think it’s my responsibility to be extra involved when one of my people is out.

      1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        I have a couple people who put in a ton of time launching a project this past weekend. I’ve been covering the monitoring and wrap-up items so they can each take some well-deserved time off, and I pulled in a person who had time to keep an eye on the details.

        I don’t make it a habit so I don’t fall behind, but when people on my team go above and beyond like this, I’ll watch for them so they can rest. I’ve been in their shoes and I know the toll the job can take. That kind of work isn’t sustainable for anyone, long term.

        TootsNYC, I don’t think that this is something you shouldn’t do. IMO, as long as my work is getting done and I’m not getting drawn back into old patterns, I don’t see a problem with occasional oversight or pitching in on a few things. It’s better for me to demonstrate what I mean about cross-functional, collaborative teams than to simply speak to it.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I also find that I learn a ton about what they’re doing, and logjams that might be in their way. Most of us, esp. diligent and responsible people like my team, often just find quick workarounds, to keep things moving.

          I have the managerial mindset (and the personal mindset) that says, “Maybe we can just eliminate this fiddly, time-consuming step” or “Maybe I can speak with that other department and get them to deliver the info in a more efficient way” or “maybe I can invest a little time in creating a master spellcheck dictionary and rolling it out.”

          It’s very valuable to me, sometimes.

  16. Allison*

    Honestly, I think it makes sense to make Cecilia’s job part-time and hire a full-time person to do her job. But that advice doesn’t help the OP because OP isn’t the manager or in a position to “manage up” with regards to the issue. I agree with AAM, OP needs to focus on how these absences affect their ability to do their work.

    I think guilt has a lot to do with this. The manager probably feels like he has no choice but to let Cecilia do what she needs to do, because family comes first, and knows that cutting Cecilia’s job to a part-time one will mean less money and fewer benefits which could be a problem. Maybe there’s an assumption that OP will be a good sport and help out, or an expectation that OP *should* be a good sport about it and *want* to help.

  17. Ashley the Paralegal*

    I also wonder about Cecelia’s past work history at the company. If she has been there for many years with a good attendance and work record until the past few months or so, that may be part of why the boss is willing to accommodate her.

  18. LAsouth40*

    I may have woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning but if talking to your supervisor first doesn’t net the results you need to avoid burnout, I might find myself a nice case of food poisoning or the flu for the first day or so your coworker leaves or the first day or two she returns. Or a really bad flu might overlap the last few days of her time out plus first few days of her return.

    But then again, I’m feeling cranky and passive aggressive today.

    1. AMG*

      It’s not the worst way to go. I used to have to cover for a coworker’s constant mistakes, recreating data analysis that he lost. I would be scrambling away at a spreadsheet while he saunters into our boss’s office to have high-level strategy discussions. After a couple of fake fire drills, I played dumb, said I couldn’t re-create it because I didn’t understand it, and let the blame and burden fall to my coworker. He miraculously stopped losing important data.

  19. Mando Diao*

    The more I think about this, the more I think that Cecilia’s age is a factor here. She’s past the age when, a generation ago, people would have been expected to voluntarily retire. This is going to start being a very common issue, with these older people declining to leave the workforce and either preventing young people from entering the workforce or becoming less reliable in the office. Alison, what do you think employers should do? Lay them off? Tell them that the time has come? Does that affect their benefits at all? My thinking is that OP’s boss is just hoping that Cecilia might decide on her own to retire, but it keeps not happening. I understand that you can’t let someone go just for being old, but it strikes me as hugely problematic that this woman is past retirement age and her employers are ignoring the realities that come with being around 70 and trying to maintain a full-time workload in addition to managing the home life issues that crop up as you and your loved ones grow older. Can she be officially brought down to part-time status without it being discriminatory?

    1. Kyrielle*

      Wait, what? This being about her age would be textbook age discrimination (at least here in the US), and it’s also ridiculously untrue. People can have family tragedies or failing bodies at any age; while it does get statistically more likely as they get older and their relatives age, there’s no guarantee either way.

      The issue should be about the employee’s *actions* and *reliability*, not her age.

      And you talk about “declining to leave the workforce” as if many of them have a choice. I’m sure some do, and want to continue to contribute, but a lot of them may not have enough to retire on, assuming they want to continue doing some favorite activities such as eating.

      1. Mando Diao*

        Um, this is why I asked. Nothing I said was inflammatory. However, I do think the root of the issue is that OP’s boss is hoping Cecilia will retire on her own, absolving him of having to do anything.

        It does seem to me that Cecilia’s issues are cropping up because of the things that naturally happen as you and your family get older, and the current employment landscape has no roadmap for what to do when these things happen in multiples. It’s worth asking how to proceed when people in their 70s and 80s continue to work but need a lot of time off for the predicable things that happen when you’re in your 70s and 80s.

        1. neverjaunty*

          C’mon. Your comment said that older people are ‘declining to leave the workforce’ and by doing so are either job-blocking younger people or are becoming ‘less reliable’. That’s inflammatory, and is about as silly as lecturing the OP that’s she’s just too young to understand what Cecelia is going through.

          And it’s also inaccurate to say that these are the kinds of things that naturally happen to people in their 70s and 80s – this could just as easily be a twentysomething Cecelia caring for babies, or thirtysomething Cecelia dealing with aging parents, or fortysomething Cecelia managing her husband’s cancer treatment program. Everybody at all stages of life can have family issues and emergencies.

        2. Tamsin*

          I disagree that OP’s boss is hoping Cecilia will retire on her own. I really believe Cecilia — being this long in the job — has accumulated a ton of legitimate leave. For some reason there’s a strong sentiment from the OP and in some of the thread that Cecilia is just vacationing and taking time off she doesn’t have, and that the boss and company are just letting her take 12 weeks off just because. All of that is aside from how the boss is handling (or not handling) the workload in her absence.

          1. Myrin*

            OP doesn’t say anything about Cecilia taking time off she doesn’t have, she just states that Cecilia isn’t solely absent because of family issues but also because she goes on vacation. OP says it in such a way that makes me think she knows that for a fact, probably simply because they talked about it.

          2. Letter Writer*

            I am trying to avoid identifying details but I will note that many folks are assuming she has been at this job for a long time due to her age. She has not. I’m not disputing the necessity, but unless they transferred banked leave from her last job that is simply not the case.

          3. Ultraviolet*

            I think your reading of the OP is completely inaccurate–are you sure you’re not attributing some other commenters’ thoughts to them accidentally? They’ve gone so far out their way in these comments to convey sympathy to Cecilia that I think they’re much closer to appearing too willing to accommodate her than resentful. (I’m guessing they’re a regular reader.)

        3. Kyrielle*

          But that’s not necessarily true. I was in my 30’s when I lost my parents and was out intermittently/unreliable for 6+ months. I’m an only child; if I weren’t married, I would reasonably have only my own health issues to worry about for the rest of my life. My grandfather was able to work (but not working: he was also able to retire) up until he was about 80, and some people are able longer. By then, their parents and often their siblings are, sadly, gone. They are unlikely to lose them again.

          The biggest vulnerability as far as family events is less age, and more how big your family is, I’d think. More siblings, more kids? Step-parents? More people who can become ill or die, and need you or at least distract you for a time. Oh, and how healthy your family is, in general, of course.

          As for the individual worker’s sick time, the vulnerability is based on how healthy they are, not how healthy the average person of their age is. So, yes, you give me 20 workers age 25, and 20 workers age 75, each controlled for other variables (race, income, etc.) – the older group will have more health issues. But when you get to specific people…I have a friend who’s been on disability since she was 25 or so due to an auto-immune disorder. And my grandfather, as I noted, could easily have been a productive and useful employee until sometime in his 80s.

          Which is why judging an individual worker based on their age is age discrimination – it’s illegal in the US because people do need to work, and their age (once legally old enough to work) is not a factor itself in whether they can. It’s nothing but a statistical marker; to be fair, you need to deal with the individual, not the statistic.

        4. Ultraviolet*

          Laying people off just because of their age is certainly discriminatory and wrong. Asking whether it’s a good idea is inflammatory–you can’t really just declare that it’s not.

        5. TootsNYC*

          “he current employment landscape has no roadmap for what to do when these things happen in multiples. ”

          We do too have a roadmap for this.
          In the US it’s FMLA, sick leave, disability insurance, etc.

      2. Artemesia*

        This is a very common problem in US Universities where tenured elderly professors can teach little, do little publishing and generally be retired and unproductive while holding down a line that is not available to hire a young new PhD entering the workforce. About the only tool to deal with it is assigning more teaching; this is not necessarily a big win for students or other faculty either. Saying ‘age discrimination’ doesn’t begin to acknowledge that fact of senior people who soak up resources as their productivity declines dramatically. Of course there are very effective older workers in any field — but age discrimination laws which prevent mandatory retirement also means that there are drones holding down slots that could go to more productive workers.

        1. Mando Diao*

          This was my train of thought. It’s not a comfortable conversation to have, but the current “way of things” assumes a turnover in the workforce that simply isn’t happening anymore.

        2. Kyrielle*

          But it shouldn’t be about age – it should be about productivity and performance. It shouldn’t be “Percival is 70 and needs to retire” but “Percival does almost nothing and is not handling what classes he does teach well; he needs to step up his game or leave”. (And yes, the structure of things in some areas, such as US universities, does make that harder than it maybe needs to be…I’m not sure of all the pros and cons there.)

          But if Percival is 70 but teaching, getting along decently with students and colleagues, researching as appropriate for his position, and generally kicking posterior in his field…then no, Percival doesn’t need to quite/retire/leave.

          1. Treena*

            I think that their age is protecting them more socially/emotionally than you think, rather than legally. A young person acting like your first Percival would certainly get the boot (maybe, sort of, eventually) and they wouldn’t get much sympathy, assuming there aren’t circumstances explaining the situation. But when your do-nothing Percival is older, people undoubtedly realize that if they get rid of him, he’s likely not to get another job again. And no one likes the idea of sending people to poverty-stricken retirement. Whereas your second version of Percival wouldn’t have the issue because no one would want to get rid of him if he’s that productive!

        3. Ultraviolet*

          Yes, but that’s a problem (or at least, odd aspect) of tenure rather than a downside of laws meant to prevent age discrimination. Indefinite tenure is an unusual type of employment. Do you think the faculty exemption from the Age Discrimination Act should be reinstated?

        4. fposte*

          I’ve seen this with new tenured professors too, though. This is about universities’ difficulty with management, not the problem of age.

  20. Ultraviolet*

    Before you talk to the boss about this, try to decide which possible solutions would be acceptable to you and which wouldn’t. I’m thinking of your last sentence: “… I cannot accommodate her at the expense of my well-being and with no extra compensation.” Would it be okay with you if things continued exactly as they have, but with some extra compensation? How much? You can also think about how many hours per week of Cecilia’s work you’re willing to take on, or which aspects of it, etc. I’m not recommending you bring that up to Jack as a bottom line or part of an ultimatum, but it will be helpful to have already thought it through if he comes up with some suggestions for changing things on the spot.

    1. Chriama*

      Agreed. As much as you’re bringing this up to basically go “this is a problem you need to deal with” it’s good to have some ideas about what his dealing with it might mean for you and which options you’d prefer.

      I think you also need to be ready to let things fail. The next time Celia is out, tell your boss “I have x and y to complete. Which of those should I stop doing in order to work on Celia’s task a?” Stop letting her emergencies become your emergencies.

    2. CM*

      Yes, exactly. This is a key principle of negotiation in general — don’t just think about the problem, think about what solutions you would want to see. And once you’ve come up with these solutions, think about which ones are ideal and which are merely acceptable. You can also be open to other suggestions that you haven’t thought of. But going in with potential solutions in mind will both help you clarify the situation, and will tell your boss that you’ve thought this through and are trying to solve the problem rather than just complain or blame anyone.

  21. Sarashina*

    Ooof, this was the post I needed to read today. My manager has had a terrible time personally almost from the moment I started working here two and a half years ago, and things seem to be getting worse instead of better, and she’s leaning on me a bit emotionally, too. We are the only two admins in a decently-sized department, and the question of how to be compassionate and helpful while keeping myself from internally combusting is on my mind every day. (And I am generally seen as the stable, drama-free type, so I don’t know that anyone actually realizes that I’m kind of underwater here.)

    Which is to say, I am reading all of your answers with interest. And OP, hoping for the best for you too!!

    1. the_scientist*

      This happened to me with a former boss. I was at that job for a year and a half and it was one personal crisis after another, including 4 months of medical leave herself. Since this was a research setting, you don’t just hire a replacement head researcher; other researchers stepped into decision-making roles to pick up the slack but her absence was still felt from a practical as well as an emotional standpoint. It must have been an incredibly difficult year, and I felt terrible for her and her family (and because it was a small office, we all sort of got drawn in to what was going on at a more personal level).

      However, it was over a year of constant crisis and putting out fires left right and centre. It was exhausting for me personally, and I felt like I was spending so much time firefighting that I couldn’t get into substantive, long-term projects. There were other reasons why I left that job, but I was super relieved to start a new job in a big organization that’s used to contingency planning- not that having contingency planning necessarily guarantees these issues won’t happen, but there are more decision-making structures and more people to spread the work around to.

    2. Letter Writer*

      I appreciate this comment especially. I’m relatively even keeled. I don’t often display a lot of emotion because I’m a private person though I am at the same time anxious. This is sometimes to my detriment because I think sometimes people take that to mean I’m fine and nothing is wrong.

      I’m learning to articulate my feelings even when it’s awkward

      1. Sarashina*

        Dude, are you me? :) I am absolutely a bottler, too. (And my manager is my exact opposite when it comes to that!)

        Actually, with that in mind: do you have someone you can practice with before you meet with Jack, to hammer out what you’re going to say? I’ve found that, since I’m used to downplaying my anxiety and stress, what feels terrifyingly assertive to me is still extremely mild by most standards. It’s incredibly helpful to have someone listen to what I’m going to say and tell me when I need to be clearer and more direct.

        And also (although I’m still doing my best to take this advice myself) if your boss or coworkers are awkward or dismissive when you try to tell them that this is an untenable situation for you, please remember that it’s not because you’re doing anything wrong! They’ve taken for granted that you’ll shoulder the extra workload, and it’ll be uncomfortable for them to realize that’s not the case. It’s understandable, but it’s on them.

        Good luck!!

  22. Macedon*

    Afraid I’ll have to disagree with you on this one, OP. Jack isn’t trying his best. He’s both your manager. It’s his responsibility to do the basic math of totalling the number of days Cecilia is not on the job. It’s also his responsibility to keep a good account of what workload volume you’re juggling and the point after which it’s gone from tolerable to unsustainable.

    Why Cecilia is taking these days off and whether she’s entitled to them is frankly immaterial. Perhaps she is navigating a difficult time of personal emergencies. Perhaps she’s taking advantage. The problem here isn’t Cecilia – she’s doing things by the letter and (somehow) getting her leave approvals. The problem is Jack, who isn’t running his aforementioned math, drawing lines and making arrangements. The fact that you have reached dissatisfaction and might be courting burn out is a blatant sign of his managerial failure.

  23. Biff*

    Something I don’t see addressed here, but I think is exceptionally important:

    The OP really needs to consider if this conversation posses a risk where she works. Some industries really don’t have work/life balance standards, regardless of what they say. I recently had a conversation with my own boss about my workload which had worked out to be much bigger than intended. My boss told me that they understood, it wasn’t what they intended, they’d like to do something…. and I needed to suck it up and get it done because there were no resources available to help me.

    If it’s the case that Cecilia is easily replaced, then I’m thinking OP is probably also somewhat expendable. So I’d treat carefully — it would be very easy for a supervisor to say “well, it sounds like what you are telling me is that you can’t do the job as we define it, so we need to find someone who can.”

    1. fposte*

      I think Alison does address this upthread–she notes that reasonable bosses will want to hear this, and even some unreasonable bosses will. I also think there’s a big leap from “Sometimes the boss can’t help” to “it will hurt you even to raise the question,” and I don’t think it’s worth making that leap without justification.

    2. neverjaunty*

      It appears that OP isn’t all that expendable, since she’s doing not only her own job, but half of somebody else’s.

  24. Elizabeth West*


    Sorry, couldn’t help myself. :)

    OP needs to talk to Jack. But yeah, she can’t make this about Cecilia. It has to be about how it’s impacting her. If you haven’t spoken up, Jack may just assume you’re okay with all this.

  25. mary*

    Coming from someone who has recently become a “Cecilia”.
    I have worked in for our company for over 10 years, however I transferred jobs about 4 months ago and now work with two other ladies that have been with the company for 2-3 years. Since I transferred, my cousin passed away, my mother was admitted into the hospital for over 2 weeks AND my kids have been sick at least 3 times (prior to this, I never missed work). When I am out, my work falls on the other two ladies. I found this blog because I was looking for advice on how to help/handle my coworkers because of all the time I missed at work.
    If I could go to part time, I would LOVE it. I have so much on my plate. However, I think if I did, my coworkers would still have issues because I wouldn’t be there as much as they are. Sometimes I feel as if there is nothing I can do to please my coworkers. When I am at work, I come in early, I ask if there is anything I can do to help my coworkers. Even my “thank you’s” go without them responding.
    I wonder if there is anything that can help the situation for either of us. What would you want to happen?

    1. Hope*

      This sounds like a problem that can be solved by crosstraining others so the burden can be shared.

      What I have noticed in the workplace is that people are not sympathetic or empathetic when co-workers have problems and need time off but when those same problems or whatever problems happen to the unsympathetic or unempathetic co-workers that is a different story, they have all the understanding for themselves.

      I worked with someone who had what I will phrase as some unfortunate circumstances happen. I think I was the only person who would defend her though people did feel sorry for her because of her circumstances. The truth is that I ended up carrying most of the burden and I should not have done that to myself. If I ever find myself in a situation like that again while I will have sympathy for a person, I will not stress myself like that.

      Management needs to crosstrain, and people need to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

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